Two years ago, a lengthy search for Joe Paterno's successor ended up with a little-expected and highly unpopular selection, but Bill O'Brien's subsequent success proved that maybe Dave Joyner knew what he was doing all along. This time around, Joyner changed course: he went out and got the top name on his list, perhaps the hottest name in the coaching ranks, he did it all in barely a week, and he hit as big a home run as any athletic director of a team facing a coaching vacancy this offseason has.
The signs pointed to Franklin as early as Monday, and after a cat-and-mouse game of negotiations that lasted until today, the inevitable finally occurred. After days of searching for cryptic clues on Twitter and following airplanes across the East Coast, what has been an oddly exciting and twist-filled coaching search has come to perhaps the best possible conclusion. Doubts about his loyalty to Penn State aside, the Nittany Lions went out and got themselves one hell of a football coach.
James Franklin's tenure in Nashville was a transformative one, and, more importantly, a hugely successful one. In his three years at Vanderbilt, James Franklin took a national laughingstock and SEC dead weight to new highs, both on the field and off of it. At Vanderbilt, he was a program builder. At Penn State, he will look to lead a sleeping giant back to national prominence.
Before Franklin took over, the last time the Commodores had a 9-win season was 1915. He managed the feat in both 2012 and 2013, making it the first time in program history they'd done it in consecutive seasons. The last time they'd been ranked in the end of season AP and Coaches' Polls had been 1948, until it was last year and then this year once again. Vanderbilt hadn't posted a winning record in the SEC since 1982. They hadn't been to a bowl game in consecutive years ever. They hadn't beat Tennessee at home in 30 years. And he managed most of it without top-flight players, using every bit of offensive ingenuity he had to cover for a lack of playmakers. One assumes that at Penn State, with Christian Hackenberg under center, he won't need to rely on the motion-heavy shotgun-spread looks that became the staple of his playcalling at Vanderbilt.
And Franklin didn't just prove he could play with the big boys--he posted wins over the likes of Georgia, Florida, Missouri, and Auburn in the last two years--he recruited with them, too. Despite operating under a strict academic handicap, and having to sell a program that doesn't exactly sell itself, Franklin's first two full Vanderbilt recruiting classes ranked #29 and #19 by Rivals--the highest in program history, of course--pulling in more than his fair share of highly-sought after 4-star prospects. And by virtue of having spent seven years as an assistant under Ralph Friedgen at Maryland, he's familiar with Penn State's familiar recruiting grounds while he opens up a gateway to the fertile lands of SEC country. Perhaps most immediately pressing, he is expected to be able to hold together much of Penn State's outstanding-given-the-circumstances 2014 recruiting class that Bill O'Brien aggregated. According to our Nick Polak, many if not most of the commits are excited for the opportunity to play for the dynamic coach.
Additionally, much like Paterno did in the 1970s and 1980s, Franklin has sought every opportunity to bring more attention to his program, appearing Monday as part of ESPN's team broadcasting the BCS Championship Game. In short, as both a leader of Penn State's football program and as an ambassador for it, there is little not to like about James Franklin. The only question is whether, like O'Brien, he would see the job as a mere stepping stone to bigger and better things.
Like O'Brien, Franklin has been courted by pro teams--this year alone, he was buzzed about for just about every high-profile opening, having been interviewed by the Texans, and receiving interest from both Cleveland and Washington. He was also reportedly one of two finalists for the coaching vacancy at the University of Texas following Mack Brown's dismissal. Unlike O'Brien, the vast majority of Franklin's 19-year coaching career has been spent at the college level, save for a single season as the Green Bay Packers' wide receivers coach. Another concern is whether he will be able to retain Larry Johnson, who, for 18 years, has been as good a defensive line coach and recruiter as anyone in the country. And yes, should it turn out that James Franklin did in fact commit some wrongdoing in the midst of Vanderbilt's rape scandal, that would be a major setback from a university still recovering from the wake of Sandusky, even if we can be sure that Franklin's been heavily vetted at the highest levels.
But those concerns are all far outweighed by the positives of this hire, as Franklin checks off every other box we could've possible made a qualification for this position. He's young, he's exciting, he's fiery, he's a well-respected offensive mind, his players love him, and he's a proven winner. He was the best man for the job. And we got him.